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The Problem With Dealing With Social Costs

Innocent Americans are today at greater risk of being victimized by violence unleashed in reaction to the anti-Muslim 14-minute-long (supposed) movie trailer recently posted on YouTube.  (I’ve not seen the video and have no wish to see it.)  Understandably, some of the discussion that has arisen during the past couple of days surrounding this video, the slaughter of Americans in Libya, and the angry protests in the Middle East touches on censorship.

The consensus opinion among the interviewed “persons-in-the-street” and talking heads whom I’ve so far heard address this issue is that no matter how hateful and despicable the video is – and no matter that the video plausibly does incite violence against innocent Americans – government has no business censoring such expressions.  I, too, take this position.

Note just what that position amounts to – it is this: Even though we know that activity A (in this case, posting an anti-Muslim video) will unleash negative effects on third parties (in this case, innocent Americans harmed, or put in fear of being harmed, by people angered by the video), the likely long-term benefits of allowing activities such as A to go on unmolested by government exceed the likely long-run costs.

Put differently, many people recognize that government suppression of freedom of expression poses all manner of potential dangers even though keeping government from suppressing free expression makes more likely other genuine and large problems.

Or put differently in yet another way: the mere existence of a negative externality is insufficient to justify government taking action to suppress the actions that give rise to that negative externality.

Many folks on the political left not only readily recognize the truth expressed in the previous paragraph, but also are very passionate in opposing those who call for government efforts to suppress free expression and similar activities that unquestionably often unleash negative effects (“social costs”) on innocent third parties.

Given this reality, shouldn’t we at least more widely recognize the potential downside of empowering government, say, to modify climate change by using taxes and regulations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases?  Isn’t it clearly true that the case for empowering government to take action against greenhouse-gas emissions is not the slam-dunk that “Progressives” and other people on the left (and some on the right) typically assume it to be?